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The most divisive issue in Caps-land

By Kareem El-Alaily

I’m ready to tackle the most divisive issue in Caps-land. Not the lack of a 2C or a shut-down defenseman, not Bruce Boudreau’s playoff coaching abilities. No, someone much more divisive.

Jeff Schultz.

Let’s do this.

I was chatting recently with some fans about the evolution of Jeff Schultz and remarking about how the chronic Schultz hate that gripped certain segments of the Verizon Center in years past is thankfully eroding. Personally, I’ve always been a Schultz fan and never understood the venom. I’ve skated as a defenseman for most of my hockey-playing days and I can tell you that No. 55 has two top-notch attributes that defensemen would kill for, namely phenomenal positioning and gap control. By routinely being in the right place at the right time he prevents passes from ever happening, which in turn prevents scoring chances. His gap control – evident when opponents skate through the neutral zone – is also superb. Assuming a forward can even collect a pass on Schultz’s side of the ice, there’s still the difficult chore of getting around Schultz’s stick and reach. Like I said, I’m a Schultz fan.

If my purely subjective opinion is not enough to sway you let me throw out some stats. We all know that Schultz led the league in +/- last year at +50. There’s an advanced stat called “+-ON/60” (courtesy of behindthenet.ca), which measures a player’s impact across a 60-minute game. At 5-on-5, Schultz was at +2.62 for 2009-10, which means that over a 60-minute time frame he was on the ice for 2.62 more goals scored than goals against. That was good for second in the NHL to Alex Ovechkin’s +2.76. For those of you that think that Schultz solely benefits from playing with Mike Green, think again. Green’s number at 5-on-5 was +2.09, meaning that Green was less effective without his partner Schultz than with him on the ice. Sounds like Green may need Schultz more than Schultz needs Green.

If “+-ON/60” doesn’t sway you there’s another stat, “+-OFF/60”, which shows how the team does when a player is not on the ice. Schultz’s “+-OFF/60” for 2009-10 was +0.91, good for fourth on the team. That means when Schultz was off the ice the Caps were 0.91 goals better than the opposition across 60 minutes; when he was on the ice they were 2.62 goals better. The difference between those numbers – what Behindthenet.ca calls “Rating” – was +1.81, second on the Caps to Ovechkin’s +2.08 and seventh in the NHL. The next closest Capital to Schultz was Mike Green at + 1.36 – almost a half-goal behind Schultz.

Conclusion: Jeff Schultz is an impact player, with or without Mike Green.

How does he do this? Very quietly. Most casual fans only notice player’s fantasy stats (goals, assists, points) as well as big hits and fights. What some miss are the nuances of perfect positioning. Rarely will you ever see someone comment by saying “did you see Schultz prevent that pass to the winger? The center was forced to enter the zone in traffic, got poke-checked and the Caps got a 3-on-2 from it.” Or “did you see the forward have to take an extra step to get around Schultz which allowed Mike Green to catch up to the play and take away the potential scoring chance?” He makes those types of non-glamorous plays several times a game, which are just as effective as Schultz standing up a forward at the blue line with a bone-jarring hit.

A good football analogy is that he’s like a very good offensive lineman – quietly keeping his QB’s jersey clean but doing it without highlight-reel pancake blocks. Yet it’s the one holding penalty (or this) that fans harp on and never get over. Considering his whole body of work the venom isn’t justified.

Do I think Schultz will ever turn into an elite defenseman? No. Let’s start by accepting that his lack of physicality is what holds him back from being absolutely dominant in the defensive zone. He’s not the answer to a Sidney Crosby or a Scott Hartnell parking in front of the net and wreaking havoc. I’ll also throw a bone to the anti-Schultz crowd by acknowledging that, yes, he lacks any sort of sandpaper-like qualities and makes Pierre Turgeon look like a tough customer. Finally, he has minimal offensive upside, with his inflated 23 points last season a result of the high quality of teammates he played with. But let’s keep his expectations within reason. He is not a solid two-way defenseman who will annually compete for the Norris Trophy nor is he a player who will energize his teammates by crunching forwards or dropping the gloves. He'll never become the physical presence some fans expect out of a 6-foot-6 player so let's appreciate him for what he actually is: a responsible defensive defenseman who quietly excels on defense, allows his teammates to take risks and keeps pucks out of his net. His very impressive stats prove it. Considering his $2.7M price tag I am more than thrilled with his play. Like him or not, Jeff Schultz is an absolute steal for the Washington Capitals.

By Kareem El-Alaily  | November 2, 2010; 1:26 PM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  | Tags:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  
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Next: Ignoring the burning wreckage: part 1

Comments

The issue with Jeff Shultz has been the lack of grit and toughness in front of the net. He also has not been the swiftest on his feet as far as turning, reversing and overall skating. He has improved in all of these areas somewhat with the skaing being the best attibute to improve. His stats were good last year and if he can keep a play in front of him he is more productive. With the vital need of grit and ornery tactics in front of the net for the Caps, it should not be a suprise to you or anyone else that knows the game as you state. Knock someone down now and then and he will be better received. If not, put a dress on him.

Posted by: ballgame21 | November 2, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Interesting perspective about Shultz that, probably, most of us did not know. Nice piece of reporting. GO CAPS

Posted by: rock-o | November 2, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

massive disagreement.

Thanks for using stats to discuss positioning which is important in the regular season, but not in the playoffs where grit, toughness, and quickness (with your stick) is so important when the puck gets down low. (Do you come to the same results in the playoff stats? I bet not.)

Why don't you do an analysis of how many times Schultz gets beat on an interior pass from below the goaline where the puck goes between his stick and skates and his hips are always turned the wrong way... It's the same goal scored on him every time. Why hasn't he learned to stop that?

Or the number of similar plays where he has failed to body up and gives up a layup goal to the defender standing alone in front of the net?

He's a defensive liability against gritty opponents. Unfortunately that's all we face in the playoffs.

Get players that get it done in the playoffs and stop giving me season stats that tell us little.

Posted by: heltzooor | November 2, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

Let's face it, Jeff is in good company when he's booed by the so-called experts in the stands.

Years ago, it was Rick Green that first got the attention of the boo-birds. "You stink, Green" was their constant cry. Well Rick was traded to the Canadians and helped them win a Stanley Cup.

And of course we had "Mr. Whooop, Whoop" a.k.a Larry Murphy.Except for his overtime assist on Dale Hunter's Flyer-killing goal--which is still one of the top plays in Caps history--Murphy was constantly vilified. So of course we got rid of him.Several Stanley Cup rings followed him to Pittsburgh and Detroit.

So let's see: Green helps the Habs win the Cup. Murphy will be a consensus Hall of Famer. Maybe, just maybe, the boo-birds are also wrong about Jeff Schulz too.

Posted by: StevefromSacto | November 2, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

He also had a habit of routinely screeening his own goalie, which accounted for many opposition scores.

Posted by: thomas20 | November 3, 2010 9:03 AM | Report abuse

Great article, Shultzie's shutdown skills are definitely under-appreciated by Caps fans. 1 more point, remember the playoff series 2 years ago when Crosby scored all those goals right at the side of the net, well Shultz was injured that series. I still believe if he was healthy that he would have been able to prevent a lot of those goals, and we could have won that series.

Posted by: hatrik22 | November 3, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Agree with heltzoor. Can some of you guys please start using playoff stats and see how those compare? Regular season stats mean nothing to the Caps right now. Yes Fleishman has great regular season stats as well, so does Semin. Tell me how that matters in April and May?

Posted by: alagarts | November 3, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

If you judge Schultz for what he is and not what you want him to be then he is an extremely valuable D man who we got for pretty cheap. Complain all you want about his lack of grit...no team has 6-7 D men who are gritty guys, you need the positionally sound, quietly doing his job D man. You want grit, complain about GMGM not getting it...b/c schultz does his job. He will be a top 4 Defenseman on any team in the NHL. Do you think Green could score like he does without Schultz backing him up? You have to make the playoffs before you can play in them. I HATED schultz a few years ago, but he has proved me wrong and I am happy he plays for us.

Posted by: capscoach | November 3, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

It's not that we complain about not having 6-7 gritty d-men, it's that we have zero grit on D. Green and Carlson, our two offensive defensemen, are the most physical. It's ridiculous that a 6'7 defenseman can't figure out how to play with any sort of physical style. He's a P***Y, I don't care if this comment gets filtered out, if you watch Schultz, he doesn't do anything out there. Doesn't help on offense, doesn't hit, doesn't play the body ever, and giving a guy credit for having a 12 foot reach is ridiculous. Great, way to be a terrible skater with zero puck skills, but make up for it by being tall.

Posted by: rsl13 | November 3, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

@StevefromSacto

Don't forget about Kevin Hatcher who also received the treatment from our fans late in his career here.

I imagine we'll have plenty of responses in this thread from those that don't understand the nuances of hockey and why Jeff Schultz is a very good NHL defenseman. I actually think the author is selling Schultz a little short. Our idiotic fanbase would try to run Nicklas Lidstrom out of town. Run Larry Murphy out of town but worship Lou Franceschetti.

Posted by: ouvan59 | November 3, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Two themes I want to address in the comments section:

1. Softness - Some posters are suggesting that Schultz is worthless because he plays soft. I won't deny that fact but it's ONE SINGLE aspect of his game. Accept it as a limitation and move on. There are other strong aspects of Schultz's game that should not be overlooked. It's like singling out Ovechkin because he doesn't routinely back-check or singling out Semin for his momentum-killing stick penalties. Should we chuck those guys too? Point is, Schultz adds value to this team even without grit.

2. Playoff Performance - Analyzing playoff stats is a wasteful exercise as there are only 7 games from last year, too small a sample size to get relevant data. But we don't need data to know that Schultz didn't have a good playoff series last year against MTL. It wasn't as bad as the categorical failures of Semin, Flash and Boudreau but it was still a poor performance. One thing to remember with respect to Schultz is that he had just turned 24 at the time. Most defensive defensemen do not fully develop until age 25 (or four full seasons in the NHL) so the Montreal grade is on an un-finished product. If Schultz plays poorly again this year then the concern over his playoff performance is valid. But we're not there yet. Give the guy a chance.

Kareem

Posted by: topshelf_22304 | November 3, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

If playoff performance is the only measure, then you have to discount Ovechkin, Green, and Semin on the skilled side and Erskine and Bradley on the tough side as well as Schultz and Fleischman from the skilled but not superstars contingent. The fact is that these Caps haven't gone deep into the playoffs yet, and no Cap has looked consistently good in their brief runs. But the notion that the Stanley Cup is won only by teams with all Yahoos on defense really isn't true. The role Schultz plays he can play effectively in the playoffs as well as during the regular season, and even if the stats may exaggerate his worth, he's still a very valuable player.

Posted by: IrishBear | November 3, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Don't know if Schultz is reading this (hopefully not), but after watching the last two games (the last two since this article was published), he was being far more aggressive down low. I was actually pleased with the effort exhibited.

I agree it's early to discuss his postseason worthiness. He's a work-in-progress and if he continues to improve at the rate he's going, he will be a solid contributor for a long time. A far cry from his "injury" withdrawal from the playoffs 2 years ago.

I agree with most of you that the booing has to go. But the season +/- stat is a ridiculous stat and is almost laughable as a basis for the article to demonstrate that he's "good." I think I was reacting more to that than the thesis of the article which is, Schultz is evolving and and continues to improve.

To delve into the "venom" Kareem has perceived regarding Schultz, it stems from disappointment. Here you have this huge mountain of a dude who has skills, but doesn't dig and fight the way a kid that's 5'6'' and 175 lbs does (Mattie -- get back to DC soon; and Mattie serves as a great counterpoint to the Schultz debate)...

The "venom" or disappointment from which it stems is a direct correlation to perceived effort. Getting into the thick of it down low equates with effort, motor, drive. Those traits drive fan love more than any other. It shows on your sleeve that you care about the outcome.

In your follow-on post, you ask us to accept his softness. Are you kidding me? Name me one player labeled as "soft" that is beloved -- in any sport. I'll cheer for the guys that dig. Those that are perceived to not be fully using their talent... those get fans shaking their heads in frustration. Whether or not he's working hard (he is), it's how he's perceived that matters.

Posted by: heltzooor | November 8, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

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